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Transition-marking behaviors of adolescent males at first intercourse.


Two "transition-marking" (Jessor & Jessor, 1975) behaviors, that is, behaviors that represent milestones in the transition from adolescence to adulthood, have been given considerable attention in the research literature. The onset of sexual intercourse and the onset of regular alcohol consumption among adolescents, both transition markers of entry into adulthood, have been the subject of numerous studies from widely disparate theoretical views (Sorensen, 1973; Zelnik & Kantner, 1980; Finkel & Finkel, 1975; Rachal, Maisto, Guess, & Hubbard, 1982; Christiansen, Goldman, & Inn, 1982).

Until very recently the transition from virgin to nonvirgin or from nondrinker to drinker was examined in separate literatures. A notable early exception is the work of Jessor and Jessor (1977). More recently several articles have examined whether the onset of one transition behavior predicts the onset of others (Donovan, Jessor, & Costa, 1988; Hundleby, 1987; Mott & Haurin, 1988; Rosenbaum & Kandel, 1990; Elliott & Morse, 1989; Zabin, Hardy, Smith, & Hirsch, 1986). After controlling for several confounding variables, Rosenbaum and Kandel (1990) concluded that use of cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, and other illicit drugs increases the likelihood of the onset of intercourse before age 16, and that this finding holds, in varying degrees, across ethnic groups.

Concerned that young adolescents were combining transition-marking behaviors, Jessor and Jessor (1975) suggested that even if those behaviors reflected societal norms, they should nonetheless be considered deviant or "problem behaviors" and be given special attention. Mott and Haurin (1988) take a more moderate approach. Because of their finding that few adolescents engage in all three behaviors (i.e., drinking, drugs, and intercourse), they suggest that "to dwell on 'syndromes' of deviance that probably affect only modest proportions of young people may be counterproductive from the perspective of developing appropriate youth programs or policies".

Still, because transition-marking behaviors are related to drinking while driving and to teen pregnancies (Hayes, 1987), there is no doubt that helping professionals, educators, and policymakers are concerned about these behaviors. Even Mott and Haurin (1988) acknowledge that "adolescent substance use and its possible linkage with other adolescent behaviors (such as sexual intercourse) may be the single most important issue on any social policy agenda involving contemporary youth".

The reason that alcohol consumption and sexual intercourse among adolescents disturb many professionals is not necessarily the early onset of these behaviors. Nor are alcohol use and adolescent sexuality of concern only because many young people combine these behaviors. Another reason the onset of these two transition-marking behaviors might disturb policymakers and service providers is that once they begin, they require that certain companion behaviors, specifically those associated with responsibility, follow. That is, engaging in one adult behavior requires that teenagers engage in others if the original behavior is to be defined as responsible by adults.

A teenager's first credit card purchase, for example, may require that teenager to make a first payment on a purchase. A first automobile requires that an adolescent keep the car filled with gas. Failure to follow one transition-marking behavior with the appropriate companion behaviors can produce difficulties which adults may have to remedy. Losing credit card privileges or letting a car run out of gas, however, does not alter the course of a young person's life. But when the onset of sexual intercourse or regular alcohol consumption is not followed by the correct companion behaviors, the adolescent's life may indeed be permanently altered. Adolescents who fail to use birth control with the onset of intercourse and who fail to drink in moderation are risking permanent damage to their lives. When two or more transition behaviors occur simultaneously (i.e., intercourse and alcohol/drug use), several companion behaviors must follow.

Current research indicates that, on average, teenagers do not use birth control for the first nine months after the onset of intercourse. Further, more than one-half of all adolescents who become pregnant within two years of becoming sexually active do so in the first six months after the onset of sexual activity (Zabin, Kantner, & Zelnik, 1979). Of more concern, perhaps, is the finding that the method of birth control used at first sex, even if none is used, is likely to persist until the relationship with a first sexual partner ends (Foreit & Foreit, 1978).

The well-being of many adolescents is threatened because of this long time span between first intercourse and first use of birth control. However, researchers consistently indicate that some adolescents do use birth control at first intercourse (Mosher & McNally, 1991; Sonenstein, Pleck, & Ku, 1989; Sorensen, 1973; Zelnik & Kantner, 1980). Whether these birth control users are engaged in any of the other transitional adult behaviors at the time of first sex is the focus of this paper. This represents a major departure from earlier cited works which explore the sequence of onset behaviors. Put another way, do adolescents who drink at the time of first intercourse employ birth control methods or plan their first sexual experiences differently from those who do not?

This study examined the first sexual experience of 80 adolescent males. Particular emphasis was placed on whether the onset of intercourse was combined with any other transition-marking or companion behaviors.

It is proposed here that two additional behaviors are companion behaviors: planning sexual intercourse and using birth control. The authors believe that each of these behaviors (acknowledging that planning is a cognitive as well as a behavioral process) demonstrates an important psychosocial demarcator of entrance into adulthood. For example, adolescents who plan intercourse have come to accept themselves as sexual beings and do not regard their sexual behaviors as occurring merely by chance. Also, those who use birth control are attempting to manage the outcome of their sexual behaviors. Either sexual planning or birth control use, or both, can be delayed for some time after onset of sexual activity. On the other hand, some young people do plan their first intercourse and do use birth control in their first sexual experience.

This study investigated the onset of sexual intercourse in relation to alcohol/drug use and the onset of the companion behaviors of planning first sex and birth control use. The research questions examined were: (1) Is there any difference in birth control use between drinkers and nondrinkers at first intercourse? (2) Is there any difference in the planning of first intercourse between drinkers and nondrinkers? (3) Is there any difference in birth control use between planners and nonplanners at first intercourse?



The sample included 80 sexually active males 16-19 years of age who accompanied female companions to a midwestern abortion clinic between July 1, 1988, and June 30, 1989. The original sample (n = 103) was reduced to 85 when respondents over 19 years of age (n = 18) were eliminated from the analysis. Of these remaining 85, 5 had missing data on one of three variables (planning, birth control use, or drinking at first sex) and also were eliminated. It is estimated that the original 103 respondents were drawn from a population of approximately 150 (i.e., about a 70% response rate). This is an approximation which cannot be validated since the researchers were not present at the time of data collection and records on male companions are not kept by the clinic. These data are part of a larger set which examines partner characteristics and relationships of teenagers seeking abortion.

The mean age of respondents was 17.95 years. Only 13% were non-white. A minority (44%) were still attending high school; another 29% were attending technical school or college. Seventy percent lived in areas with populations of 25,000 or less. Most (79%) were supported at least in part by their parents, and 70% were employed part or full time, with 64% of those employed working 30 hours per week or more. Most lived with both parents (60%) or a parent and stepparent (5%). Twenty-eight percent resided in single-parent homes.

The group was 53% Catholic and 29% Protestant, with 18% indicating no religious affiliation. The high proportion of Catholics reflects the region from which the sample was drawn, and is discussed later. Only 15% reported attending religious services twice a month or more. Educational achievement of parents was somewhat above the norm, with 50% of fathers and 42% of mothers having some education beyond high school.

With regard to transition-marking behaviors, 35% smoked cigarettes, 93% drank alcohol (39% once a week or more), and 41% admitted to being drunk a minimum of six times in the last year. While only 16% said they currently used illicit drugs, another 28% indicated that they had used illicit drugs in the past.

Data Collection

A 103-item questionnaire was administered that included descriptive information and parallel questions about the circumstances and behaviors at the respondent's first sexual experience, and the sexual experience at the time he believed his partner became pregnant. The questionnaire was anonymous and voluntary. In a cover letter attached to the front of the questionnaire and signed by the clinic director and the researchers, respondents were encouraged to participate. Completed questionnaires were returned to a sealed box.

The weaknesses of self-report data are acknowledged, and several steps were taken to enhance the validity of the data collected. First, questionnaires were not only anonymous, they were completed privately and not in proximity to the researchers or clinic staff. Second, the questionnaire contained numerous questions about events at different points in time, which permitted identification and subsequent elimination of respondents who provided inconsistent information. The researchers were surprised that only five questionnaires were eliminated due to inconsistency. Further, while the mean age at first intercourse reported by this sample was younger than that reported by some other researchers, and the sample was not assumed to be representative, it compares very favorably with data reported for rural males. Small (S. A. Small, Child and Family Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, personal communication, February 1, 1991) found that among a representative sample of 11,131 rural Wisconsin males in Grades 7-12, 49% reported having had intercourse by age 16. This finding supports the notion that the 80 males in this study may not have been as different from the general population from which they were drawn as originally thought. In any event, caution about unwarranted generalizations is urged.

Data Analysis

Data were analyzed using the Statistix 4.0 (1992) microcomputer software package which is referenced to Snedecor and Cochran's (1980) Statistical Methods. The t-test analysis used the two sample t-test calculations with the assumption of an independent and dependent variable. The chi-square analysis incorporated the Yate's correction in all instances where any cell had five or fewer cases. In the data reported here, only three such cases occurred. The .05 level of confidence was the minimum accepted for statistical significance. Tables contain the actual t, chi-square, and p values so that readers may make independent judgments about the strength of trends.


Birth Control Use at First Intercourse

As Table 1 indicates, 50% of the sample engaged in the transition-marking companion behavior of birth control use at first intercourse. This finding is neither extraordinary nor was it unanticipated. Zelnik and Shah (1983) reported a similar proportion (49.1%) of their national sample of males as contracepting at first intercourse. Of their older males (17-21), almost 60% had done so. Sonenstein et al. (1989) reported that 62.2% of their sample of 12- to 19-year-old males contracepted at first intercourse. In the present sample, the finding that there was almost no difference in the average age of the users and nonusers of birth control is probably a factor of the similar range of ages in both groups.

Two variables were associated significantly with contraceptive use: Catholicism and a steady relationship. Two others were narrowly beyond significance: employment and one-parent households. The relationship between planning and birth control use, which demonstrated a strong trend in this study, has been documented elsewhere (Flanigan & Hitch, 1986; Zelnik & Kantner, 1980; Herold & Samson, 1980). While various studies have reported that only a small proportion of young males or females plan their first sexual experience, those who do plan are more likely to use contraceptives. On the other hand, the reason given most frequently for not using contraceptives is that the first instance of intercourse was not anticipated (Zelnik & Shah, 1983; Herold & Samson, 1980).

The reason for the positive relationship between Catholicism and birth control use is not clear from these data, although it has been reported elsewhere that 15- to 19-year-old Catholic women report a slightly higher level of birth control use at most recent intercourse than do nonfundamentalist Protestants or those professing no religion (Kantner & Zelnik, 1973). While low religiosity has been associated with more effective contraceptive use in men 17 through 20 years of age (Mott, 1983), religious attendance in this sample was not positively related to birth control use.

The positive relationship between employment and use of contraceptives is also not fully understood. Since cost of contraceptives has been TABULAR DATA OMITTED mentioned elsewhere as a deterrent to contraceptive use (Zabin & Clark, Jr., 1981), one could speculate that employed young men may be more able to purchase birth control devices. This seems doubtful, however, given that most literature cites other, more plausible reasons for nonuse, such as embarrassment or a feeling that sex ought to be spontaneous (Sonenstein, 1986).

As shown in Table 1, the strongest association was between steady sexual partners and birth control use, which is consistent with findings reported elsewhere (Sorensen, 1973; Foreit & Foreit, 1978; Cvetkovich & Grote, 1979). Researchers hypothesize that young people in stable relationships may communicate more about contraceptive use (Kar, Marcus, Rykwalder, Serko, & Tell, 1979), and that males in steady relationships may care more about their partners' well-being (Sorensen, 1973).

Drinking at first intercourse was not significantly associated with birth control use, but it was strongly associated with planning. Amount of alcohol consumed was also not significantly related to contraceptive use, but it was related to planning intercourse. For the entire sample, however, the highest percentage of birth control users was in the group (n = 28) which did not drink but did plan to have intercourse. Sixty-four percent of that group attempted to use a contraceptive method as compared to 46% who both drank and did not plan to have intercourse (n = 6).

Research by Kantner and Zelnik (1973) suggests that the higher the educational level of a female parent, the more likely young women are to consistently use birth control. In the present study, however, neither the mothers' nor the fathers' educational level was significantly related to use of birth control by sons at first intercourse. In fact, there was a trend toward a negative relationship between mothers' educational level and sons' use of contraceptives at first intercourse.

Planning of First Intercourse

While half of the sample used some form of birth control at first intercourse and there was no statistically significant relationship between birth control use and alcohol consumption, such was not the case with regard to planning behavior. As can be seen in Table 2, 32 males (40%) planned their first sexual experience. This was higher than the 25% reported for white males by Zelnik and Shah (1983), but little other data with regard to planning are available for male adolescents. In the present study, planners were statistically different from nonplanners in a number of important ways.

Age at time of transition-marking behaviors for planners and nonplanners. The mean age at onset of first intercourse was 15.8 years for TABULAR DATA OMITTED the sample as a whole. This is consistent with the most recent reports that by age 16 about 50% of both male and female adolescents have had intercourse (Sonenstein, Pleck, & Ku, 1989). However, the planners were approximately 10 months older at first sex than were nonplanners (p = .0313), suggesting that the cognitive behavior of planning is related to age-associated development.

The onset of alcohol use also occurred at a later age for planners than for nonplanners. (The statistical significance is greatly influenced by the greater age variability among nonplanners.) The mean age of onset for the whole group (14.4 years), however, was close to that reported by other researchers (e.g., Jessor and Jessor, 1975). In this sample, alcohol use either preceded or occurred in the same year as first intercourse for all but 9% (n = 7) of the respondents. This finding contradicts those of other authors cited earlier (Jessor & Jessor, 1975; Mott & Haurin, 1988), but is supported by another recent study that focused on the temporal order of delinquency and the onset of drinking, drug use, and sexual intercourse (Elliott & Morse, 1989). This contradiction can probably be explained by the fact that Elliott and Morse (1989) as well as the present study used "first drink ever" rather than the "regular use" notion discussed by others (Mott & Haurin, 1988). The differences between the two ways of conceptualizing drinking are discussed in some depth by Mott and Haurin, and their comments certainly have relevance here. While we do have data regarding current frequency of drinking, we do not know the age of onset of "regular use."

The entire sample, as well as the subgroups of planners and nonplanners, was predominantly Catholic. This is thought to simply reflect the high proportion of Catholics in the geographic area represented in this study and the fact that a disproportionately higher number of Catholics seek abortions (Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1988). Since the respondents were accompanying women seeking abortions, both factors may independently increase the number of Catholics in the sample. An analysis controlling for religion revealed no statistically significant differences across religions with regard to planning.

Family variables: parental education and living arrangements of planners and nonplanners. Both mothers and fathers of respondents were relatively well educated, with 42% of mothers and 50% of fathers having had some education beyond high school. The statistically significant differences between the educational attainment of parents of planners and those of nonplanners are puzzling. Since little has been written about planning of first intercourse, reference to earlier findings is impossible. While some studies have examined parental education and its relationship to birth control use at first sex, we choose not to invoke it here because considerable evidence supports the idea that the companion behaviors of planning and birth control use are quite different. Analysis of the parental education variable in this study also supports this notion.

The relationship between planning and parental education was different--and in the opposite direction--from what one might predict. That is, there was an inverse relationship between sons' planning and the education of both mothers and fathers, with nonplanners twice as likely to come from homes where both parents had some education beyond high school.

As mentioned previously, most respondents lived with both parents or a parent and stepparent. While not statistically significant, more planners than nonplanners were living in single-parent homes (36% as compared to 23%). Though not statistically significant, this research does support a finding by Sonenstein (1986) that first sexual experiences occur at a younger age in single-parent families. Respondents from single-parent homes were, on average, 15.4 years old when they became sexually active as compared to 15.9 for those living with both parents. It should be noted, however, that even though more planners were likely to come from single-parent homes, they were still older as a group than nonplanners (15.9 as compared to 14.9 years).

Relationship to first sexual partner of planners and nonplanners. The majority of the respondents (63%) had their first sexual experience with a steady girlfriend or fiancee. This reflects a somewhat higher proportion of males in committed relationships at the time of first intercourse than was reported by Zelnik and Shah (1983)--47%. It is in sharp contrast to the data of Sorensen, who found only 15% of males at first intercourse paired with a steady girlfriend or potential marriage partner. These data lead us to agree with Sonenstein's (1986) conclusion that "the stereotypical view of all males as sexual opportunists is not fully supported by the data".

Planners were more likely to be committed to their first sexual partner than were nonplanners, although this difference did not quite attain the .05 level of confidence. That planners were in more committed relationships than nonplanners is also borne out by the fact that 53% of planners, in contrast to 28% of nonplanners (p = .022), were still involved with their first sexual partner at the time they completed the questionnaire--on average 2.1 years later.

Drinking at first intercourse for planners and nonplanners. While 30% of the sample reported drinking at the time of their first sexual experience, the planners were much less likely to do so than were the nonplanners (p = .0111). In fact, only 4 of the 32 planners drank, and only one of them drank five or more drinks. In contrast, 20 of the 48 nonplanners drank, with 15 (75%) consuming five or more drinks. Planning the first sexual experience, then, becomes a powerful indicator of sobriety at the time of first intercourse.

Since other researchers have not studied the relationship between alcohol consumption and planning at the time of first sex among males, we can compare these findings only with other data we collected among adolescent females 18 years of age or younger. The data from our sample of the female partners of the males who are discussed here show that 28% of the females planned their first sexual experience and that, like their male counterparts, 32% of them drank.

As with the male sample, only 13% of the female planners drank, as compared to 40% of the nonplanners. Because the same relationships have been observed in all female samples studied to date, as well as in the present analysis of male respondents, the authors suggest that the inverse relationship between planning and alcohol is likely to be consistent across samples, irrespective of gender.

Summary of planning as a variable. Adolescent males who planned their first sexual experience were older at onset of both transition behaviors of drinking and first intercourse than were their nonplanning counterparts. They were more likely to reside in single-parent homes, and their parents were less likely to have completed any education beyond high school. They tended to have their first sexual experience with someone to whom they were committed, were unlikely to drink alcohol, and were more likely to use birth control than were nonplanners. In sum, among planners, becoming sexually active was not associated with drinking but rather with the use of birth control.

Profile of Adolescent Males Who Employed Two Companion Transition-Marking Behaviors at First Intercourse

Of the 20 young men in the sample who engaged in the two companion transition-marking behaviors at first sex (i.e., planned their first sexual experience and also used birth control), a few observations are worthy of comment. Their average age at first intercourse (16.3 years) was not different from planners who did not use contraceptives. The age at which they began to use alcohol was close to that of all planners, but slightly older than the average sample age (14.8 years as compared to 14.4 years). On average, their mothers were somewhat less educated than planners who did not use contraceptives, but their fathers' educational level was slightly higher. Like other planners, the majority (90%) did not use alcohol at first intercourse. This, again, was significantly different from the alcohol use of nonplanners. On other measures, those who had both planned and used contraceptives were very much like other planners.

Summary of the Relationship Between the Two Transition-Marking Behaviors and the Two Companion Transition Behaviors

Of the 24 young men who engaged in two transition-marking behaviors at once (drinking and first intercourse), 4 (17%) planned intercourse and 11 (46%) used birth control. Of those who engaged in intercourse only (n = 56), 28 (50%) planned and 29 (52%) used birth control. Of the 24 who drank at first intercourse, only 2 (8%) engaged in both companion behaviors--planning and birth control use. Of the 56 who did not drink, 18 (32%) engaged in both companion behaviors. Clearly, in this sample at least, the adolescents who drank at their first sexual experience were less likely to plan intercourse than were nondrinkers, but were almost as likely to use contraceptives. Only two drinkers, though, both planned to have intercourse and used contraceptives.

Planning, Birth Control, and Drinking at First Intercourse

In an earlier study (McLean & Flanigan, 1988), the authors proposed that drinking was not an intervening variable between first sexual experience and birth control use, but rather an antecedent of both the propensity to plan first sex and use of birth control measures at that time. That is, those who drink are unlikely to plan and therefore are less likely to use birth control. The use of alcohol alone, however, does not affect the likelihood that someone will use birth control.

In the present study of adolescent males, the same relationships were established. The one notable exception was that the strength of the relationship between planning and birth control use was much weaker for males. For example, no relationship was found between drinking and birth control use at first intercourse (identical to findings among females), there was a strong inverse relationship between planning and drinking (as among females), and there was a weaker relationship between planning and birth control use (unlike the very strong relationship found among women).

While these relationships need to be tested among other samples with greater economic, racial, and religious heterogeneity, on the basis of the four female and two male samples examined, it appears that all three relationships may be sustained over time. Further replication of findings is essential.


The authors acknowledge that this study had a number of shortcomings: the findings were descriptive of a fairly small sample, the sample was probably not representative of a cross section of adolescent males; and the methodology relied on self-report. Nonetheless, because similar relationships have been found in other samples of both male and female adolescents, the findings cannot be easily dismissed. Thus, the findings should be of more than cursory interest to educators, helping professionals, and policymakers, if only to support the need for additional research in this area.

If professionals and policymakers are concerned that adolescent sexuality and alcohol use are problems simply because they believe these activities to be in and of themselves harmful, then one kind of policy might emerge--presumably to prevent early transition into these behaviors. If, however, policymakers agree with Chilman's (1989) recent statement that adolescents who "engage in non-marital intercourse in the context of a committed, caring relationship, and with adequate contraceptive and health protections, may well be expressing positive psychosexual development", then another kind of policy might be developed.

The findings indicate that (at least at first intercourse) one-half of the adolescents attempted to manage the outcomes of their sexuality by employing birth control. Drinking alcohol was not significantly related to the attempt to use birth control. Also, nearly two-thirds of the sample had first intercourse with a steady partner or fiancee, and almost 40% planned to have first intercourse. In this sample as well as all others we have studied, a noteworthy pattern emerges: nondrinkers are more likely to plan first intercourse than are drinkers, and planners are more likely to use birth control.

Since sexual onset and alcohol-use onset are normal transitions into adulthood, and if it is correct that the average age of onset of these two behaviors is not decreasing (Zelnik & Kantner, 1980; Rachal et al., 1982), the transition-marking behaviors customarily addressed in the literature should not necessarily concern policymakers. As Mott and Haurin (1988) have suggested, if policymakers dwell on behaviors which are neither deviant nor combined in ways which endanger health, their efforts might be counterproductive to the development of appropriate youth programs or policies. Instead, we believe that the companion transition markers to sexual onset used in this study (planning and birth control) might be more useful subjects for research and public policy, at least where early adolescent sexuality is concerned. Alcohol use combined with sexual behaviors might be a fruitful area to examine as young people acquire longer sexual histories.

Adolescents who fail to plan first intercourse may also be more likely not to use birth control, while those who drink and do not plan are both more likely to drink heavily and to have intercourse with someone other than a steady friend. We believe that failure to use birth control is perhaps more harmful to adolescents' long-term well-being and their general welfare than the fact that some young people, early in their sexual histories, combine alcohol use with intercourse.

In their transition into adulthood, young people would be better served, as would the welfare of the general public, if those who provide youth services could find a way to decrease the time between first intercourse and use of birth control. Perhaps one way to do so would be to place greater emphasis on planning and birth control use. One purpose of this study was to better understand how transition-marking behaviors and their companion behaviors were combined for one group of young males. Continuing research into alcohol use and intercourse throughout adolescents' sexual histories might further increase this understanding.


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Ann L. McLean, Ph.D., Associate Professor, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, and Family Living Specialist, Cooperative Extension.

Beverly J. Flanigan, M.S.S.W., Clinical Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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Author:McLean, Ann L.; Flanigan, Beverly J.
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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